Trekking the Himalayas to set up camera traps

Posted on 19 October 2016

Capturing snow leopards on film in North Sikkim in India
For the past 14 months, Phuchung Lachenpa, has been hiking through the mountains of Khangchendzonga in India setting traps for snow leopards – camera traps to capture images of the elusive big cat.

With so little data about snow leopards, particularly in this part of North Sikkim, Phuchung’s work is critical. Only by gathering more information about snow leopard behaviour and numbers can we develop effective conservation plans to conserve them.

And his weeks of tireless trekking – often braving very harsh weather conditions – to set up and monitor camera traps have paid off. Photos and videos from these traps have provided conclusive evidence of snow leopards in North Sikkim and begun to provide vital data for WWF-India and the authorities to use.

For Phuchung, who has lived in North Sikkim all his life, working for WWF on snow leopards is a dream come true, combining his love for the mountains and his passion for wildlife.

“I grew up in these mountains and love seeing the beautiful animals in the wild,” said Phuchung, who was one of the first community members to be trained by WWF-India to conduct snow leopard surveys. “This job allows me to work outdoors, in the mountains that are my home.”

While he has not yet spotted a snow leopard with his own eyes, he has seen many of the other extraordinary and threatened species that live high up in the mountains, including the Himalayan monal (a large pheasant), Tibetan gazelle and Himalayan blue sheep.

“I feel completely lost when I am in a city or a town even it is only for a few days,” said Phuchung. “But in these high meadows and rugged mountains, I feel at home. I would not trade this for anything else.”

Increasingly, community members are turning to him for information, especially when he returns from his trek.

“People know there are snow leopards in the mountains around their villages, but no one had ever seen a photograph of one until they were caught on our camera traps,” aid Phuchung. “Now, whenever I return from my field surveys, excitement builds up in my village as people want to see what the camera traps have caught.”

And Phuchung has used this enthusiasm to create greater awareness among communities about the importance of snow leopards and their critical role in the ecosystem – as well as the need to conserve them and the prey species they rely on.

“I advise people not to hunt or harass animals,” said Phuchung, who fully understands the pressures people face in this tough environment and how snow leopards can be seen as the enemy by herders.

But the photos have helped to demystify the Ghost of the Mountains and show snow leopards in a new light. And with someone from their own community leading the efforts to save Khangchendzonga’s snow leopards, there is now real hope for the big cats in North Sikkim.
Camera trap image of snow leopard in North Sikkim, India
© WWF-India
Phuchung trekking through Himalayas to set up and monitor camera traps for snow leopards
© WWF-India
Phuchung trekking through the snow to set up and monitor camera traps for snow leopards in India
© WWF-India
A camera trap, used to monitor species such as snow leopards, and tigers.
© WWF Nepal
Phuchung and team searching for snow leopards in mountains of North Sikkim, India
© WWF-India